In the times when everyone around us seems to be enjoying “comfort and joy”, what are we to make of it when that isn’t our experience?

Difficulty is part of the human adventure. None of us are immune from sadness, sickness, tragedy, or loss. During the holidays, parties, Christmas card photos, and sappy TV movies can be sharp reminders of areas of our own lives that are less than merry. At times, it may even feel like the holidays target our specific pain. Is this the first Christmas without Mom? You may find yourself hyper-aware of every holiday ad featuring mothers with their family. First New Year’s Eve since the divorce? Que the couples, kissing at midnight. Facing job loss or financial hardship? Suddenly every instagram post seems to be highlighting an exotic holiday vacation or Christmas tree surrounded by plentiful gifts.

If you begin to sense pain in the holidays, take a step back and become mindful of the experience. Practice observing your thoughts and feelings without adding judgement to them. Then, take stock of how the holiday season may be impacting you.

The holidays can bring added stress even under the best of circumstances! The expectation of gifts, food, gatherings, family time and memory making- while meaningful and fulfilling at times- can come at a hefty price tag when you are already struggling with the day to day tasks of life. If this is your experience this year, I want to suggest three gifts to offer yourself this season:

1. Give yourself the gift of realistic expectations

You may feel uneasy with the idea of altering traditions or missing a holiday event that is normally attended- but realize that the feelings you are currently experiencing will not last forever, and you will likely respond differently in a year’s time. Give yourself a pass when needed. Altering your holiday for one year is not a forever decision, and we can cause ourselves undue stress with thoughts like, “But dad ALWAYS insisted we all go to the mountains together to hunt and cut down the perfect tree” or “I HAVE to make the plum pudding, Christmas Eve will be ruined without it”.  Remember, when you find yourself dealing with absolutes- all or nothing, black or white, the “always” and “have to” thoughts- it can be a signal that you may be setting unrealistic expectations for yourself. Ask, “What would I advise my best friend to do in this circumstance?” It’s often easier to extend compassion and reason for others and framing our situations in this light can help us gain insight into areas where we are unduly hard on ourselves. When our emotional bandwidth is limited, it is wise to be intentional with what we give attention to. Skipping the neighborhood cookie exchange to reserve your energy for the annual family caroling night isn’t channeling your inner scrooge, rather, it’s making the wise choice to conserve your energy to show up fully for what matters most to you.

2. Give yourself the gift of self-compassion

Closely related to point number one, but important enough to warrant its own bullet point- is to give yourself the gift of self-compassion. Honor your feelings, giving yourself permission and space to feel them. Journal, pray, talk to a friend, think it through while running- whatever you find best helps you acknowledge and process your emotions. Can you identify how you have given yourself compassion today? Add a spoonful more.  It’s the holidays, after all- be generous!

3. Give yourself the gift of healthy boundaries

Give yourself boundaries with family, friends, coworkers and neighbors. Say yes when appropriate. Say no when appropriate. It’s not your job to ensure everyone is happy!

The best gifts truly can’t be wrapped up in colorful paper or adorned neatly with a bow. With that in mind, this holiday season, give freely and abundantly the gifts I’ve suggested to yourself and others. Observe needs- your own and those around you- who might be in need of your gifts of kindness, support, or the absence of judgement? Offer your gifts generously, then gift and re-gift! I promise it will go over better than fruitcake, and you won’t even have to fight traffic or crowds to find it.